Till death do us part: a marriage being wretchedly unhappy is no ground for ending it, say courts


Divorce. CC0 - Public Domain


Last week Tina Owens lost her appeal after the family courts refused her a divorce – saying her reasons for wanting it weren’t good enough. Has the time come for the law to be reformed?

This piece was written in the style of the Guardian’s Pass Notes as part of my portfolio for my MA Journalism course at Goldsmiths.

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Name: No-fault divorce.

Age: As yet, unborn.

Appearance: Very attractive according to former high court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge QC.

Don’t you mean, ‘It’s your fault’ divorce? No, that’s the point. Last week a woman, Tina Owens, was back in the family court to appeal its refusal to grant her a divorce from her unhappy marriage – but the judge was having none of it.

It’s not automatic? Not even close. Sir James Munby, the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, said at the hearing: “It is not a ground for divorce if you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage”.

Sounds rather 19th century to me. Quite. Specialist divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag called it “beyond archaic”. Currently the only quick way to get divorced is claiming there has been adultery or “unreasonable behaviour” from your spouse.

No amicable separations here, then? A survey in 2015 found that 27% of faults alleged in divorce petitions were made up to satisfy the courts. Even if a couple have separated, this can only be cited as a reason for divorce after two years apart – and only then if both parties consent. Mr Owens did not.

If love can’t keep her with you, there’s always the law. She filed 27 allegations of “unreasonable behaviour” including an airport argument – but he told the court they still had “a good few years” left together. For his part, the judge said these sort of rows were a normal part of married life!

Time for reform, eh? Coleridge described divorce law as “antediluvian” – but politicians seem wedded to it. A 2015 attempt to introduce a no-fault divorce bill didn’t make it past its first reading. Whereas Sweden reformed its law to allow divorce through mutual agreement in 1915 – over a century ago.

Time for all unhappy couples to flock to liberal Scandinavia? Or to convert to Islam. A Muslim spouse married under Islamic law merely has to say “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you” and the marriage is over.

Ouch. Can be, yes. One Saudi divorced his wife immediately when he saw her face for the first time on their wedding day.

Perhaps we can find a middle way? Maybe. Or we could just ignore the issue. I mean, it worked for Lords reform.

Do say: “But we only did it for the tax breaks!”

Don’t say: “I do.”

Profiting from fear

I am safe after yesterday’s sad events – which are a tragedy for those who have lost loved ones, or who may have life changing injuries.

It’s understandable that people feel the need to check on people close to them who may have been in the area – and to provide that ‘just in case’ reassurance. Once the thought comes to mind, it’s hard to do anything else.

Four or five people are killed in the UK – on any average day – in road accidents. In terms of being killed purely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, what’s happened in Westminster is hardly a blip. There are other areas we should be focusing on to reduce the number of lives tragically cut short. Where I’m currently living, 7.5% of deaths are due to air pollution. The lives lost due to mental illness, or austerity – whether indirectly or directly – are probably higher; but it’d be hard to estimate. And the equivalent of at least one Londoner a day is killed by climate change – already – although its victims are disproportionately in poorer nations.

It is only too human to get things out of proportion: one death is a tragedy, a thousand are a statistic; and the values of the news cycle exacerbate that.

What is not forgivable is Facebook – which profits from advertising on extremist content of all sorts – deliberately fueling that with its ‘mark your self safe’ tool (in the case at least, basically a gimmick).

It is using that to cement its own indispensability as a money-making communication platform: effectively forcing people to mark themselves safe. Profiting from the worst kind of heart wrenching event.

Beyond ‘Consensus’ Decision-Making

Consensus decision-making claims to solve a major problem of majoritarian decision-making – that a minority can have its views or needs over-ruled. It carries the promise of a system where everyone can take part in decisions, and where outcomes are reached that have everyone’s full approval. Consensus decision-making is useful and innovative, particularly for the emphasis it places on deliberation and discussion.

But consensus decision-making process often fails to live up to its aim of producing decisions that all participants fully consent to, and needs improvement. It doesn’t allow us to be sure that we have made decisions which everyone is ok with. Whist it is possible that done well, by experts, it mighti, as generally practiced, it falls short. This is a problem, because a democratic decision-making process needs to be simple enough that everyone understands how it works – and that everyone can see that decisions have been made fairly – otherwise it won’t be democratic. If consensus decision-making only works between experts, it’s not fit for purpose, and needs rethinking.

I will discuss here, firstly, what ‘consensus decision-making’ is trying to achieve and why it fails, before discussing several major problems with how it is currently used, and suggesting some possible improvements to make it a more democratic and effective process. I will then discuss more generally the importance of disagreement and the need for a distinction to be made between the arguments against representative democracy and the arguments against voting.

What is consensus?

What does consensus mean? Whilst many would say it means that everyone consents to a decision, it is often, and is easily, confused with unanimity. Unanimity would mean everyone agrees with the decision reached, or even that everyone shares the same opinion, which is crucially different.

What’s the problem with voting?

Many people dislike majority-voting because it can involve a majority imposing their views on a minority. People are born free and should not have decisions made about them without their consent to these decisionsii. To get away from the perceived domination of majoritarian decision-making, consensus decision-making process claims to avoid voting, replacing it with a ‘check for consensus’; instead of a yes/no vote, participants are invited to agree, to ‘stand-aside’iii, or to block, vetoing the decision. Because there is no ‘yes / no’ vote, and the focus is on discussing problems to find a solution, with the option of a veto where participants have unaddressed concerns, it is argued that ‘consensus’ solves the problem of majoritarian decision-making; the coercion implied in a minority having their views over-ridden. But in fact by doing this consensus only disguises the problem.

To understand things better, we can make a distinction between voting and the ‘decision-rule’. Voting is simply a means of assessing everyone’s preferences – for example, by a show of hands. This is separate from the decision-rule, which is how we interpret these expressed preferences to determine what outcome has been chosen by the decision-making process: i.e., it is the criteria which a decision has to meet to be considered passediv. So, for example, a vote is often to show support either for or against, or for one of a number of different options: in a referendum, the vote is each person choosing which box to tick on the ballot paper. The decision-rule is how we interpret this vote: in a yes/no vote, for the motion to pass it might require a simple majority (50% of votes in favour), or a two-thirds majority: these are different decision-rules. Decision-rules need not be majoritarianv.

On this definition, it’s clear that the formal consensus decision-making process does involve voting: participants can vote in favour, to stand aside – or to blockvi. And the decision-rule is that for the decision to pass no-one must show disagreement: that no-one uses a block and there are not significant numbers of stand-asidesvii. So participants can disagree but it can be hard to do so, requiring a lot of confidence or bravery, and to express continued opposition by using a block you must place yourself in the position of preventing what everyone else is apparently agreed upon. It is even harder to take this step if you have not already shown disagreement in the discussion stage, if you perhaps felt unable to articulate your opposition. An absence of disagreement or of a block in consensus decision-making does not necessarily mean genuine support: it might simply mean that participants do not wish to hold up decision-making by expressing their disagreement.

Fetishising ‘not voting’, without a proper understanding of what we are opposed to, is harmful. Consensus decision-making does allow voting: it merely mystifies it, using different language, and gives no clear mechanism for no votes. Consensus decision-making can place pressure on people to agree and go along with what is perceived to be the leading option – and with no easy way to vote against, discussions can easily be swayed by whoever talks the loudest or the first, by dominant activists, or even by the way a facilitator pushes or frames the discussion. Without participants having had the opportunity to vote no, there is no way of knowing that the decision is genuinely the one supported by the most participantsviii.

One possible change which might solve this problem would be for ‘checks for consensus’ – the voting that follows discussion – to allow participants to vote in one of four ways: support, oppose, stand aside, or block. This actually gives participants five options, counting the possibility of abstaining. In this, opposing means ‘this isn’t what I think we should do, but I’m happy to go along with it if the group is in favour. Stand aside means ‘I don’t think the group should do this and if the group chooses to do despite me, I will not take any part in implementing it’. Block remains, as in consensus decision-making, a vetoix. This change would not result in participants having their views ignored; instead, it allows people to honestly register disagreement, whilst still being happy to go along with a decision. To avoid the assumption of agreement, instead of calling this a ‘check for consensus’, participants should be asked to show their preferences; or we should straightforwardly call it a vote. It is important to be honest, and refusing to call consensus checks a form of voting creates confusion and misunderstandings.

Making it easier for people to express their genuine opinions, including via clear voting methods, is necessary for us to make sure we reach decisions that have the greatest support and to which everyone consents.

Deciding between different options

Consensus decision-making often doesn’t have a clear process for considering and then deciding between multiple optionsx. This is partly because of its focus on discussion and collaboration, which allow different ideas to be merged, and which are important in their own right. Unfortunately however, the result of this can be a confusing, jumbled decision-making process; discussion flits in a disorganised way between different options under consideration, sometimes making the process frustrating. Moreover, it is often up to either the facilitator or whoever talks most which option gets taken forwards to a check for consensus. Majoritarian methods can suffer from similar problems.

Where different proposals can be constructively combined or improved, this is a good option. However, this will not always be the case and decision-making processes need a method for choosing between multiple proposals. One way of doing this would be for the facilitator to ask for proposals for ways forwards and for these to each be discussed in turn, allowing each one to be developedxi and amendments, before space is made for participants to express which should be taken forwards further to a final discussion and preference check. This could be quite time consuming, but more productive than trying to talk about several different topics at once. As for deciding which of the options has most support, there are several possible processes:

  • The simplest way of deciding which proposal is most favoured would be with a simple show-of-hands or temperature checkxii. This is, however, imprecise.

  • For more important decisions or where there is time and the ability to write out ballet papers, using a Condorcet method, Modified Borda Count, or Single Transferable Vote would ensure an outcome likely to work well for everyone. These methods involve voters numbering their preferences for different options in orderxiii.

  • Amendments to particular options could be made before or after a decision on which is the most favoured alternative, and accepted or rejected by the group. Experimentation by different groups will help determine the clearest process to follow.

Pluralism is a good thing and allowing a number of different options to be more fully developed and then decided between ensures a better quality of decision, with full awareness of all possibilities. Having a clear process to follow for deciding between multiple incompatible options would take power out of the hands of the facilitator, ensuring groups as a whole decide which possibilities are taken forwards.

Blocking change, or: time to veto the status quo?

One criticism often made of consensus decision-making is that the ability of people to block decisions can make change difficult. This can make it conservative and potentially prevent inequalities from being tackled, as changes can be blocked. However, once the decision-making process is adjusted to deal with decisions between multiple alternatives, there is a way out of this: the status quo should also have to argue its case. Certainly where historical inequalities remain, or where current practices are the result of previous un-democratic decision-making processes, it should not be assumed that this can continue if other options are blocked. To privilege the way things are, just because that is the way they have been in the past, contains its own form of violencexiv.

Disagreement makes us stronger

It’s important to be able to disagree, and to move forwards, constructively, despite these disagreements. Do we want to only live and work with people who share all of our views? I think it is important to challenge and to be challenged. This may take practice, and may at times be difficult, but it’s vital, vital to avoid becoming stuck in the bubbles and echo chambers of people who share the same views as oursxv. If we want to live in a democratic society, we need to be able to make decisions collectively, not just in autonomous, internally homogeneous groups. And when making decisions, having competing options and alternatives open makes our decision-making stronger – and is at the root of democracyxvi. A pressure for our groups always to agree can be stifling, hampering productive critique and debate. And the pressure consensus decision-making creates for everyone to agree encourages fragmentation: the creation of many different groups each with their own nichexvii, rather than the difficult building of alliances, of solidarity and collective strength, that we desperately need.

Voting and ‘representative democracy’

The arguments against voting can be mixed up with the arguments against representative democracy: Government and Parliament are associated with elections and voting, and voting comes to be seen as guilty by association. Confusing these arguments risks misunderstanding and mis-diagnosing the problems in our society.

Lack of democracy in our society comes from a number of places, including:

  • Many areas of our society – most people’s work places, much of the economy – are excluded from democratic decision-making: decision-making is seen as a private matter, with decisions-making powers bestowed by ownership.

  • State decision-making bodies are not genuinely democratic: they are ‘representative democracies’ rather than participatory democracies. The idea is that we choose them and they make decisions on our behalf…but even in theory, it has been shown that representative democracy is contradictory and doesn’t really work as democracyxviii. In practice, our MPs and ‘representatives’ are also highly influenced by money and other factors.

  • In Britain, particularly, the first-past-the-post electoral system distorts who gets elected. This means parties with a minority of the votes can get a majority of the MPs, and all the power in government. This is related to the problem of majoritarian decision-making. But the solution here is not for parliaments to use consensus decision-making: what would this result in? Whilst it would limit governments’ power to do harm, it would also harm the ability of governments’ with broad public support to take progressive steps. Would slavery have been abolished if the US congress had to agree it by consensus? Instead, the way states and democracy work, and how and where decisions are taken, needs to be fundamentally changedxix.

  • Decision-making is often highly centralised, even within supposedly democratic institutions, such as the state.

  • Some topics are not seen as matters for democratic, collective decision-making. Private property for example is seen as an absolute, rather than a creation of social institutions.

  • Media organisations, from whom we get much of our information and many of the ideas which we use to understand the world, are not democratic and their control is often highly centralised.

Hierarchies in our society are not primarily due to the use of majoritarian decision-making methods rather than consensus.

Spreading democratic decision-making

‘Consensus’ hand signals are a great innovation, and could be used fruitfully in other decision-making processes; as could be many of the other techniques sometimes used as part of consensus decision-making: using go rounds to give everyone a chance to talk, splitting into smaller groups, or using ‘fish bowls’xx. And consensus decision-making is great in many ways, particularly for emphasising the importance of talking in democracy, not just the voting; and when done well, for attempting to bring more structure to collective decision-making. However it has its own shortcomings and falls short of its own claims to produce decisions that work for everyone. It is crucial for us to find ways of making democratic decisions more effectively; otherwise, insisting that consensus is the only democratic decision-making process but struggling to make it work, people will resort to using sleight of hand to avoid having to make decisions as a group. Tricky decisions are hived off into ‘working groups’, or organisers simply avoid democratic decision-making completely, for fear of getting bogged down in endless debatesxxi.

It seems that many people who argue for consensus decision-making hate voting so much that they would rather groups resort to more hierarchical methods than consider using some form of voting. For example, the American activist Starhawk argues:

Consensus process can help a group find the best possible solution to a problem, but it is not an effective way to make an either-or choice between evils, for members will never be able to agree which is worse…flip a coin…In emergencies, in situations where urgent and immediate action is necessary, appointing a temporary leader may be the wisest course of action.xxii

Is a group taking some form of vote such a travesty that letting one person make the decision, or letting an inanimate object make the choice, is preferable? Or is refusing to consider using voting methods a defence mechanism that allows us not to have to think about different ways we could organise? Majoritarian voting is not the main enemy: forcing more decisions to be opened up to collective and participatory decision-making should be more of a priority than insisting that we never vote. Consensus decision-making should stop relying on a false distinction between voting and not voting.

Good collective decision-making involves synthesising many different needs and perspectives to find a way forwards that can gain the most support. It involves balancing the urgency and importance of the decision, and the various obstacles different group members face to taking part in the decision. Some may be less articulate or confident making their voice heard, perhaps because they are part of a historically-disadvantaged group, or because they are unfamiliar with the group, or the decision-making process. Decisions also vary according to the amount of time worth spending on them, and the number of options available. A group might need to decide which of ten varieties of porridge oats to buy, but members don’t think the decision worth more than a few seconds to decide on. Group size, location and resources, experience also vary: good and effective decision-making needs a balance all of these competing priorities, according to the groups wishes. Ideally this process of prioritising decisions, too, should be democratised and be up to the group as a whole, rather than just left to the facilitatorxxiii.

Similarly there is no point being perfectionist about our group decision-making methods if the cost of this is minimising the number of decisions made by the group as a whole.

A good democratic decision-making process must be understandable by all who take part in it, and must provide an effective means for people with a variety of different opinions to make mutually acceptable decisions. Part of being mutually acceptable is that it should be clear that the process itself meets certain minimum criteria. It must also strike an appropriate balance, aiming for thorough and participatory decision-making, but prioritising, even taking short cuts, to make sure that excessive time is not spent on minor issues. Whilst I have pointed to several ways the process might be improved, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

These suggestions are alterations to the existing consensus decision-making process, but if a new name is needed to avoid misunderstandings, it could be called ‘pluralistic direct democracy’.

Pluralistic Direct Democracy: Summary of process

This flowchart summarises how an amended decision-making process could look. This can be summarised as: Prioritise Agenda Items, Introduce Issues, Propose Solutions, Discuss & Amend, Focus, Vote.

This process is still complicated but avoids some of the mystifications of ‘consensus decision-making’, and hopefully it can be helpful for campaigners and others. This is only one of many possible democratic decision-making processes, and finding which work best in different circumstances will require experimentation.

Perfecting a decision-making procedure is not on its own sufficient for democracy. We need to develop a culture of consent, and of supporting people to take part in decisions that affect them; where people don’t dominate conversations, and make space for everyone to speak. We need more discussions of when things become public questions, of where private matters end and needed to be opened upxxiv. And we need to find ways of making bigger democracies, collaborating between groups and knitting them together, not just settling for internal democracy. And even in our movements, we need more democracy: too many events, too many organisations, and too many decisions, are not made through a democratic process. Hopefully by developing a satisfying, effective decision-making process we can demonstrate that participatory democracy is possible and necessary.

See also:

Jo Freeman’s article, the Tyranny of Structurelessness, can be read here.

Some useful introductions to consensus decision-making can be found on the Seeds for Change website. This is a longer explanation of how to use it.

A short discussion of an alternative to consensus can be read here: “Near-consensus alternatives: Consensus Oriented Decision-Making”.

Post Header Image:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/collina/6160549878/ 'Straw Poll on Direct Action' by Collin Anderson, CC:By-NC-SA 2.0

References & Footnotes:

i Christopher Haug distinguishes between four different types of consensus decision-making in practice: see www.opendemocracy.net/christoph-haug/assembly-publics-and-problem-of-hegemony-in-consensus-decision-making

ii Paul Wolff famously outlined the philosophical case for anarchism and against authority. See: Wolff, R.P. (1970) In Defense of Anarchism: With a Reply to Jeffrey H. Reiman’s In Defense of Political Philosophy. New York etc., Harper and Row.

iii The meaning of this has often been unclear; in groups I have been part of some have taken it as standing out of the outcome – ‘it can go ahead but I won’t be part of it’; others have seen it as a symbolic kind of no vote, misnamed and misunderstood.

v According to Wikipedia, the Borda Count ‘is often described as a consensus-based voting system’.

vi Even if in practice this check is often skipped and process is unclear. Haug (2012)

vii Haug, Christopher (2012).

viii We shouldn’t worry about no voting being ‘negative’. Honesty is more important than false positivity, and having no as an option means that when agreements do go through we can be sure that there is genuine positive support.

ix As in ‘consensus’, the extreme step of a block could be discouraged by requiring the wielder to explain their reasons: with great power comes great responsibility. This could perhaps be waived for historically-disadvantaged groups, those who may find it harder to participate in decision-making. Following a block groups should generally move on to discuss other options; is their an alternative course of action that satisfies everyone? Creativity is required to find an outcome that everyone can live with!

Groups can also split or choose to implement the decision as a subsection of the group, or where a decision must be made and participants cannot find a course of action that will not be blocked, it may be necessary to over-ride this – incredibly rarely. Formalised processes have been developed for dealing with these instances, for example, by the Quakers. See http://treegroup.info/topics/handout-consensus.pdf (p.3) for some ideas of ways to deal with blocks.

Stand-asides should also be taken seriously, and when this happens a group should decide whether to go ahead without the dissenter or whether to look for another option.

x Crowd-wise is an example of a method that has a clear process for deciding between different options,based on the Modified Borda Count: https://rhizomenetwork.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/near-consensus-alternatives-crowd-wise

xi Facilitators can use the amount of time allocated to making the decision to inform how long to give each proposal. Discussion could proceed in two ways; either the facilitator could ask first for proposals, and once these have all been drawn out, move on to discussion of each; or, as each proposal comes up, focus on that idea before asking for other proposals (which may be prompted by the discussion).

xii There could also be a show of hands and then a run-off second vote between the most favoured options. A further possibility would be, if full discussion had been had for each of the alternatives, to do a full ‘consensus check’- checking for agreement, disagreement, stand asides and blocks. The option with the greatest majority and without blocks or stand-asides would be chosen.

xiii Condorcet methods compare each option against every other option, examining these pairs to determine which of each is most preferred: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_method. Borda Counts allocate each option a number of points depending on how high up each voters preferences they are: http://www.deborda.org/faq/voting-systems/what-is-a-modified-borda-count.html. These methods can produce different outcomes. For important decisions these methods are more likely to select an option on which everyone can agree than a straightforward show-of-hands will.

xiv Several thought experiments can be done to help us think through how decision-making procedures deal with different situations. One of these is found in a hypothetical post-revolutionary village. Residents have got together and the topic of today’s meeting is land reform. Most residents are arguing for redistribution, but one greedy land-owner, the village’s former lord, who has more land than the rest of the village put together, is ready to veto reform. Should this be allowed? Or should other residents be allowed to veto such an unequal state of affairs? Tradition can be oppressive and consensus decision-making risks allowing them to continue. Whilst this may be an extreme example, inequalities and privileges do exist within our social movements, just as they clearly do in wider society.

xv This is a phenomenon that new online technologies and phenomena are exacerbating: see e.g. Sunstein, C.R. (2007) Republic.com. Princeton, New Jersey ; Oxford, Princeton University Press. See also: http://dontbubble.us and http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles?language=en

xvi Mouffe, C. (2007) Articulated power relations: Markus Miessen in conversation with Chantal Mouffe. Available from: https://www.westminster.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/6457/csd_mouffe_interview_with_miessen_ArticulatedPowerRelations.pdf [Accessed: 19 March 2014].

xvii Many supporters of consensus implicitly accept this when they say that a prerequisite for using the process is shared views and goals within a group.

xviii Pitkin famously said there were four different, and often competing, forms of representation: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-representation/#PitFouVieRep . Previous to the modern period elections were thought of as the opposite to democracy. Instead citizen juries and other participatory processes were associated with the word.

xix This is far beyond the scope of this article to discuss. And even what we mean by the state is unclear, but unpicking it is closely linked to unpicking undemocratic power associated with it. See for example: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/janet-newman-john-clarke/states-of-imagination

xx Splitting up into smaller groups for some bits of discussion is a useful method . Or for large groups a ‘Spokescouncil’ method can be used. See: http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/consensus#largecdm for a discussion of some tools groups can use.

xxi This article discusses some of these criticisms of consensus – and challenges us to reach a consensus on using consensus decisions-making, arguing that if we can’t do that, we shouldn’t be using it.

We do see people looking for alternatives to consensus because of this. One alternative which has gained some popularity is ‘sociocracy’. I am sceptical about sociocracy for several reasons.

a) Sociocracy is both a method of having meetings but also a structure for organising meetings. That, in itself, is a good thing, and makes it unlike ‘consensus decision-making’ which is only about how you organise meetings.

It is important to think about wider structure, because a democratic society or a democratic organisation must be one where the relations between different groups or meetings function to make the whole democratic, not just the individual parts (meetings) on their own.

However, sociocracy, as I understand it, specifies that meetings (‘circles’) should be ‘double-linked’ – each of them should be linked by one person from each circle attending meetings of the other circles. Even if functional, this isn’t necessarily a good thing: for example, if this means that there will always be someone from the executive board of an organisation within meetings at other levels, existing power relations are likely to mean that what they say, goes. Sociocracy also makes no specifications about what the relations between different groups should look like, and therefore allows a situation where one ‘circle’ is given authority over another.

Structure needs to take account of, and often work against, existing power relations, to try and democratise organisations. That’s not to say that sociocracy couldn’t work in a democratic way, but perhaps it needs clearer guidelines to avoid being anti-democratic.

My preference is for coordination between different branches/groups/meetings to be done by collective meetings of recallable and rotating delegates – a spokescouncil-like model, perhaps. I also think there’s a case for decisions made more centrally to go back to ratification and even amendments at a more grassroots level.

b) The requirement in sociocracy for arguments to be framed in terms of the interest of the organisation as a whole could be quite harmful. This also puts a lot of power in the hands of whoever is able to define the interests of the organisation – often likely to be its executives. For many organisations, ‘the interests of the organisation’ is defined as whatever is best for its finances – which has profoundly anti-social consequences. People being framed as ‘traitors’ by nationalists, or socialists being kicked out of the Labour party for supposedly having campaigned against it previously, are examples of how organisational loyalty can have reactionary consequences.

xxiii This is easier said that done and may not always be possible. Facilitators must use their judgement, but their decisions should be challenge-able by participants, if they are rushing through a particular decision, for example.

Two ways of democratising this power of facilitation could be, firstly, going through the agenda as a group at the start of each meeting, and putting topics to be tackled in order of importance and agreeing how long to spend on each. Another way of doing it would be for each participant to allocate, with post-it notes or a pen, how long they would spend on each decision and this could simply be averaged.

Secondly, during decision-making, participants should be able to suggest a different way of proceeding, with a ‘process point’ hand signal (thumb and forefinger made into the shape of an O?). Process point suggestions could be accepted by default, or if challenged, put to an instant vote.

xxiv I recently had a discussion with someone who was setting up a new organisation aiming to be a platform for alternative media across the UK, but who, whilst professing support for consensus, was keen ‘not to make it too open too early on’. Whilst people should be able to do their own things and organise in their own ways, where a project claims to be for everyone or on behalf of a population, there should be a duty to facilitate democratic involvement in shaping this. At what point does a ‘private’ project need to be open to wider stakeholders? This is not a question that has been given much discussion. A culture where private poverty and wage slavery are endemic and where economic democracy is almost non-existent have allowed this crucial question to go ignored.

How many managers does it take to do a hip replacement?

In recent years it has been ‘all change’ in the UK’s celebrated health service, the NHS, after the 2012 Health and Social Care Act shook up NHS institutions and triggered restructurings of services.

Healthcare seems boring – until you need it: and then your healthcare system is what makes the difference between just being able to walk into a surgery or a hospital for care as in the UK – or having to stump up tens of thousands of pounds – as in the US if you don’t have health insurance.

Recent government policy in the UK is changing the health service, claiming to increase choice and efficiency through the use of the market in our health service. But underneath all of this, what is really going on, and is it really good for patients?

Efficient Competition?

Traditionally, NHS services were all funded by a ‘single payer’ – the state. Recent changes have split NHS organisations between ‘purchasers’ and ‘providers’. First of all, ‘purchasers’ were given state funding to buy services for patients from other public organisations: the ‘providers’. Got it? State organisations buying services from other state organisations – makes sense, right? This has now been extended further by the Health and Social Act, to allow private companies and the third sector as well as public NHS bodies to bid for contracts. This is supposed to increase efficiency by introducing competition: by choosing between a number of different options purchasers are able to get the best deal, in theory.

These changes are also based on the idea that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector – an idea that might not seem quite as obvious to anyone who often travels on the UK’s privatised rail service, with expensive fares despite a significant state subsidy.

Efficiency or Bureaucracy?

Looking in more detail, creating a market in healthcare has itself proved vastly expensive: NHS spending on administration increased from five percent before the introduction of the internal market to twelve percent afterwardsi.

Any potential benefits of market competition are also reduced in healthcare as it is difficult for patients and healthcare purchasers to get enough information to make well-informed choices between providers: creating league tables for services is difficult, as good health is affected by many things, not just the quality of health services. Economic theory argues that markets will be efficient where all participants have perfect access to information: this is not the case in healthcare. Is someone about to have their appendix removed going to undertake detailed research into the pros and cons of the different surgeons who might be able to carry out their operation?

Counting the cost

Whilst the intention is that providers are pushed to provide better services for less, with competition between healthcare providers often driven by price rather than quality – which is difficult to measure – competition can end up driving quality downwards. Many NHS ‘savings’ have also been achieved by cutting employee pay through a five year pay freeze. In addition to harming workers’ welfare, this may have a negative effect on the wider economy, by reducing spending employees’ spending power, with knock on effects for other businesses.

The Big Picture

The NHS provides health care to all UK citizens for less cost than in many comparable countries: according to 2008 figures, UK healthcare spending amounted to 8.7% of GDP, compared to 11% in France, and 16% in the United Statesii. But in addition to judging health services on cost and effectiveness, we must also look at how good they are at providing everyone with access to healthcare – particularly if healthcare is considered to be a human right. In this area the NHS’s traditional state-provided model has many benefits: it has repeatedly come top in a Commonwealth Fund survey of OECD nations for both effectiveness, and for access to healthcareiii.

Instead of asking whether the NHS is affordable, we should be asking whether it can afford competition.

Find out more:

NHS Privatisation keeps on failing patients – despite a decade of warnings:


Mythbusters: “The Private Sector is more efficient than the public sector”: http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/entry/mythbusters-the-private-sector-is-more-efficient-than-the-public-sector

Perfect Competition:


Information Failure:


Featured Image:


i Pollock, A., Leys, C., Price, D., Rowland, D. and Gnani, S. (2005) NHS plc : the privatisation of our health care. London : Verso

ii OECD (2010), “Health Expenditure In Relation To GDP”, in OECD/European Union,Health at a Glance: Europe 2010, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264090316-43-en

iii Davis, K., Schoen, C., Stremikis, K. & Fund, C. (2010) Mirror, mirror on the wall: How the performance of the US health care system compares internationally: 2010 update. Commonwealth Fund; Campbell, Denis, and Nicholas Watt. “NHS Is The World’s Best Healthcare System, Report Says”. the Guardian. N.p., 2014.

To bomb or not to bomb, is that the question?

Last week David Cameron’s plan to make Britain a part of attacking Syria was fortunately scuppered, when not just the public, but many MPs too, refused to accept the argument that ‘not standing by in the face of massacres’ entails a moral duty to bomb a foreign country.

Of course, we should do what we can to stop bloodshed and prevent human rights abuses – but that responsibility towards our fellow humans does not begin and end when a state that is disliked by the US commits an atrocity. And there are many things we can do other than military strikes or invasions, which often make matters worse.

Stopping selling weapons to countries such as, er, Syria, to whom Britain recently sold substances which could be used to manufacture chemical weapons, would be a good start. David Cameron last year toured the Gulf as part of an explicit attempt to sell weapons to the dictatorships that are the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Does he genuinely believe that selling lethal technologies to the Middle East will make the region more peaceful or encourage these states to respect their citizens’ rights?

Whilst there may be a need for us to produce some weaponry for our own defence, allowing a trade in armaments is a sure fire way of creating a bloodier world. The legally mandated drive for profit means that private arms manufacturers must seek to sell as many of their deadly wares as possible – and therefore they have a vested interest in both creating conflict, and in selling to despots. Britain’s claims to a moral high ground for its invasions are undermined by these arm sales– if the UK genuinely invaded Iraq for humanitarian reasons, why had it previously flogged tanks originally intended for Iran to Saddam Hussein? Efforts to investigate the corruption that the arms trade produces has frequently been shut down for ‘national security reasons‘, that empty smokescreen for curtailing democratic debate, even as arms sales contribute to instability across the world; and divert resources from more productive parts of the economy.

Perhaps our ‘humanitarian’ war mongers should remember the old adage ‘charity begins at home’. If there is genuine concern about human rights abuses abroad, they should be respected in the UK as well – instead of which the British state is interrogating journalists and kettling protesters, while the Conservative Party would like to rescind the Human Rights act.

Part of the problem is that too often human rights are seen as woolly liberal concepts, rather than essential tools for protecting people against states and other large institutions. This in turn is a consequence of having a frozen view of human rights as those rights that were laid down by the UN charter – rather than seeing them as part of a broad philosophical, and political, tradition and debate. Part of the remedy for this is a real, and global, debate about what we consider the essentials of life to be that are due to people as people – as well as a debate about the responsibilities that go with these.

Whilst here is a clear difference between a state murdering hundreds or thousands of its citizens in cold blood, and a state detaining a journalist over a news story that it didn’t like, they both have their roots in a huge over-concentration of power, backed up by violence. Human rights offer a moral shield against this; we also need institutions and sanctions which can insure they are respected. Independent and critical journalism is itself one tool for holding states to account, and that makes the violation of the journalist David Miranda’s rights particularly worrying. Ideally, we would have a world movement of citizens capable of holding states accountable for these violations of human rights. In the absence of this, governments professing concern for human rights and democracy should support independent and democratic mechanisms to uphold them.

This means supporting and strengthening the International Criminal Court (ICC) as well as other independent institutions capable of monitoring and rating states – and corporations – for abuses of democracy and human rights. Along with this there could be a sliding scale of sanctions and inducements for states to respect human rights. If there is to be military intervention, it should be taken against the worst offenders – not at the whim of a few US-aligned Western states.

Instead of pursuing a credible humanitarian agenda abroad, the US is one of the countries that is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court (despite its current imperfections, it is at least an attempt to hold states to account), and has forced other states to sign bilateral agreements to give US soldiers and citizens immunity from ICC prosecution.

Now there is something for Obama, and Cameron, his would-be ally,  to think about.

Value – or Finance?


Politicians cynically bemoaning a loss of social values has become all too common, from Gordon Brown’s appeal to nationalist sentiments in talking of a return to ‘British values’, to David Cameron’s shallow suggestion that the riots were a result of the loss of family values. And yet a proper discussion of our values is sorely needed, because all too often one value has been a dominant organising feature of our society: financial value. Whether in the guise of profit, efficiency, cost-cutting or value-for money, finances have come to be a key factor driving the way most organisations and social actors work today.


This doesn’t apply just to profiteering corporations, where directors are legally obliged to put profit above all else. It also applies to NGOs whose activity often becomes dominated by the need to chase funding: not only does this take away from their other activities, but it also means their priorities are determined by the agendas of the state or of those with wealth. And money is dominant in the minds of the public too: whether as consumers whose purchases are driven by whatever is cheapest, or as employees enslaved on the nine to five in order to pay rent, pensions, mortgages, and other necessities. Society wide the skewing of priorities by financial considerations is seen in our failure so far to take serious action against climate change, and also in recent austerity policies: not just corporate but also state behaviour is driven by cost-cutting, and not by any evidence of what is best for individuals, businesses, societies or the economy.


This is worth pondering, because money creation is ostensibly controlled by the state, although in practice much is created by banks as credit (see positivemoney.org.uk for an explanation). Money is a social construct par excellence – it has no intrinsic value or use, and as bank runs and currency crises show, its ‘value’ only lasts so long as confidence in this ‘value’ remains. Money is not serving the interests of society, and even the state is bound by the logic of its own creation – rather than remaining a means, money has become an end.


But money is not a universal feature of human civilisation, it is a historically specific one – before the rise of industrial capitalism, distribution through gifts and mutual obligations were far more common. As a society we must begin the discussion of where financial mechanisms are appropriate, and of what the alternatives are – and organisations must ensure that finances, and institutional preservation, do not become their raison d’etre.


There are two recent examples in our small corner of Edinburgh of this institutional myopia – despite some attempts at change. The first was when the trustee board of EUSA, an organisation whose sole reason for existence is student democracy, overturned the decision of a quorate referendum to boycott brewer SABMiller on financial grounds.


The second case is the ongoing scandal of the university’s investment portfolio, which reads like a roll call of dirty industries. Despite the university’s status as a non-profit public research and educational institution educational and support for fair trade and sustainability on campus, there is little evidence that the university’s values are being applied in the management of its £230 million. Campaigns against arms and tobacco have had some success in the, but investments remain in Ultra Electronics Holdings, which manufactures military drones – currently being used by the US in in contravention of international law, and causing civilian deaths and serious psychological trauma to civilian populations.


Meanwhile a significant proportion of the investment portfolio is in fossil fuels, despite the proven need for at least 80% of oil reserves to be left in the ground for catastrophic climate change to be avoided. In its failure to even balance environmental and financial considerations, the investment committee has so far failed to implement the university’s own policies on sustainability – and has ignored the financial risk associated it with fossil fuel investment, the many other industries which are creating socially useful investment, and the possibility of investing positively in student services and the university’s own estate, which could reap both social and financial rewards. Change is needed, and it can start right here on our doorstep.

This is the longer version of an article that was originally published in abridged form in the Student Newspaper.

For more on the Responsible Investment campaign at the University of Edinburgh, check out the blog at investethically.wordpress.com.



Facebook & Society

Facebook has recently announced that it is going to start charging you up to £11 to send messages to ‘celebrities’.

If there wasn’t enough of an issue already with giving this private corporation a monopoly on the way we communication, this should persuade people to move to alternatives. This comes on the back of huge privacy issues, the profiting from your personal data (on Facebook, you are the product, being sold to advertisers), and the secret ‘algorithm’ which decides what you see on your news feed. An algorithm which allows people to pay to promote their posts.

Facebook represents, and apparently believes in, the model of a society where those with more money have a greater voice. And for those who believe in the right to free speech and the right to protest, Facebook should be anathema: it could be shut down by the authorities when desired, and also leaves the potential for selective censorship (you know when any posts related to Christmas, Easter or whatever pop up on your news feed? Imagine if any posts related to, say, UK Uncut were automatically downgraded…). Moreover, people have been arrested for things said on Facebook and Twitter; and Cameron has been suggested that Facebook could be shut down during ‘social unrest’.

The alternatives are out there; Diaspora is a social network that is free and federated (meaning that, like email, it can be installed on many different servers which can talk to each other – you can install your own ‘pod’ to keep control of your own data).

See also:


Here’s a more articulate indictment of Facebook than mine: Why I’m not on Facebook

And here’s an article about how Facebook scans your private messages. There’s also some more information about Facebook changes and privacy here.

Public Health not Private Wealth: In Defence of the National Health Service

Nick Dowson


The British Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was greeted on his arrival in Edinburgh on Friday with a crowd of angry protesters outside the Surgeon’s Hall where he was due to speak in support of his forthcoming Health and Social Care Bill.


Strange perhaps for an issue which will only affect the NHS in England, both Lansley’s presence in Edinburgh and the vehemence of the opposition. But this is an issue which strikes to the heart of the fight over what sort of society we wish to live in; and as we’ve seen with tuition fees, decisions made for England by Westminster often have knock-on effects North of the border.


Lansley’s plans mean nothing less than the end of the NHS as we know it, and despite a coalition agreement promise for ‘no more top-down reforms’, and the bill not being in any election manifesto, this government is forcing it through despite widespread opposition, including calls from almost all professional health organizations for its complete withdrawal. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives have within the last weeks formed a united front against the danger this reorganization poses.


Why the bill is so harmful I will explain below, but one key fact in itself should be enough for widespread suspicion; the government is refusing to publish, despite an order from the information commissioner, the ‘risk register’, a report commissioned by the civil service into the dangers of the bill. It’s easy to suspect that the department of health’s failure to publish this risk register is because it fears even more widespread opposition to the bill if the bills dangers were made public; at the very least, it is fundamentally undemocratic to hide this information from MPs and the public at a time when important decisions are being taken on the future of our health service. If you find this as fishy as I do, before you read any further please go to the Unison website, where you can email your MP and demand that the risk register to be published immediately.


So what will the bill do? For starters, it changes the Secretary of State’s duty to ‘provide’ a universal health service to a duty to ‘promote’ one. Think of the difference between providing free dinners for all school pupils and ‘promoting’ free dinners for school pupils. Why has Lansley seen it necessary to make this change, except so that he can cease to provide the universal healthcare, free at the point of need, which has been so fundamental to the NHS since its creation by Aneurin Bevan in 1946? Fortunately this element of the bill has already come under intense scrutiny and may be changed.


What else? Key to the changes is that GPs are being put in charge of ‘commissioning’ health care and services, a process which has already being begun even without legislative approval. Essentially this means the NHS’s budget will be turned over to doctors with little interest, knowledge or time to manage it; their focus is, and should be, the welfare of their patients, and putting them in charge of financial considerations would create a fundamental conflict of interest. Furthermore, forcing this extra responsibility on GPs would not lead to more ‘choice’ or a patient-centred NHS, but would leave many of them with little option but to pay private companies to take this extra chore off their hands.


This pressure towards privatization will be bolstered by giving Monitor, a regulator, powers to enforce competition within the NHS. It will also make EU competition law enforceable within the NHS. In the Netherlands, where a similar change was made, the Dutch GP association has been fined 7.7m Euros for trying to ensure all areas of the country were adequately provided with GP services. Is the Westminster government trying to create a postcode lottery?


A further government amendment to the bill will take this privatization even further; NHS hospitals will be allowed to earn up to 49% of their income from private patients. Exactly what it says on the tin; this creates priority for those who can afford to go private, and means less beds, less urgency in treatment, for the rest of us.


But don’t take my word for it; the research and evidence is all out there for the finding. This bill could mean the end of a service which has received high levels of public support, and has provided high standards of universal healthcare for lower levels of spending than in most other European countries (only 8.4% of GDP), and for vastly less than the cost of healthcare in America (16%); so why move towards their more expensive privatized healthcare system, when it is so much less effective?


Leaving aside those in this government who stand to profit handsomely from expanded private healthcare (Lansley’s wife runs a lobbying agency; see lowassociates.co.uk for a weird trip into their murky world. And as shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley received 21,000 pounds from John Nash, chairman of private health firm Care UK. Other members of cabinet also have distinctly dodgy links.), the NHS is a central ideological target for the Conservatives. A public and universal healthcare system that treats all equally is fundamental to a society where all can fulfill their individual potential; it’s necessary to a healthy society of which Cameron’s ‘big society’ is but a perversion. An expansion of NHS principles further into public health, preventative medicine and mental health provision would mean a society where all were better off.


Ideologies like that of the millionaire Westminster government which promote private greed and minority interests at the expense of society as a whole can only be opposed to such an idealistic, yet practical, vision, as that embodied in the NHS that we have today but are at risk of losing.


The NHS is not perfect, but it does not ‘need fixing’. After increased spending on it under Labour, public satisfaction with it reached a high point.  Parliament’s Select Committee for health has come out against the bill; even elements within the Conservative party, and the popular blog Conservative Home are now worried about its effects. But fortunately the success of this bill is looking ever more fragile by the day; Ladbrokes has 2/1 odds on Lansley being the next minister to leave the cabinet. Now is the time for action; write to your MP, sign petitions, protest and do whatever – whatever – it takes to stop this bill of destruction. For those who let it pass will have blood on their hands.


This is an extended version of a shorter article which originally appeared in The Student